Thirty years ago, on the morning of April 25 1974, troops from Portugal’s Armed Forces Movement (MFA – Movimento das Forças Armadas) began what was to become known as the Revolução dos Cravos (the Carnation Revolution). By the end of the day, António Salazar’s 48 year regime, which had survived the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the defeat of Fascism and Nazism to be continued by his successor, Marcello Caetano, was over.
Then, smiling soldiers with carnations in their gun barrels joined jubilant people on the streets of Lisbon, dancing on top of armoured vehicles and tanks. Amazingly, neither the civilian population nor the revolutionary troops sought revenge on their former masters. In all, there were only four casualties – innocent victims of the former regime’s secret police.
Today, town squares, city streets and sports stadia are named after the date of the Revolution. But, for those who suffered under the dictatorship, street names are not necessary in order to recall Salazar’s overthrow. For many older Portuguese people, life under the dictatorship meant being forced to take part in a futile colonial war (1961-74, in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau) where thousands were killed and maimed. Citizens lived with censored news, no state welfare, an inadequate education system and extreme political, social and sexual inequality. So, for these people, the Revolução dos Cravos was an important day that changed their lives.
For the younger Portuguese generations, the date signifies a day off school to mark the end of a regime that most find impossible to imagine. And it is hard to believe that before the Revolution, Coca-Cola was a forbidden drink, and a special state licence was required to own a cigarette lighter. The logic behind this thinking was simple within the context of the dictatorship – owning a cigarette lighter required a licence because there was only one company that produced matches and its financial interests had to be protected.
Coca-Cola was prohibited simply because it was considered to be a symbol of the United States, a country that Salazar hated. In a letter to the chairman of Coca-Cola in Europe, he wrote: “I tremble at the thought of your big trucks driving at speed through the streets of our old cities, accelerating, as they drive by, the rhythm of our centuries old habits.” Salazar’s refusal to allow foreign products into his country was legendary and he was equally rigid about letting any of his people leave Portugal.
Until the very last days of the regime, a Portuguese citizen had to apply for permission to emigrate from the mainland to any of the seven colonies – and this was frequently denied. Salazar himself only left Portugal once in his 42 years as Prime Minister, when he went to meet the Spanish dictator Franco in Badajoz, just across the frontier.
So what did the revolution achieve?
Statistics demonstrate how dramatically life in Portugal changed after the Revolução dos Cravos. Life expectancy increased from 69 years in 1974, to 75 in 1999. Domestic plumbing, sewage and electricity, available to about half the population in 1974, were almost universal by 1999. Infant mortality fell from 39 to eight per thousand births. The number of women in the labour market rose from 15 per cent to 48 per cent. The number of school students doubled and university students increased by 400 per cent.
There have also been changes that cannot be measured by statistics. Today, every Portuguese citizen is free to vote for their party of choice, organise a meeting, choose a religion, travel the world, marry and divorce, dress in their choice of clothes, spend the night with a man or a woman in a hotel without having to prove they’re married… None of these things were possible before the Revolution.
Perhaps more amazing than the changes is the pace at which they have taken place. No other European country has undergone such a transformation at the speed with which Portugal has. There are still problems to be solved: poverty in the interior, unemployment, an insufficient health service, an overly bureaucratic system and, in some areas, corruption. But, at least now, Portugal has the freedom to discuss and try to resolve these issues. As Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the military operations commander of the Revolution, said: “That was what the Revolution was made for.”
• Information and images sourced from the CPHRC archive. More on the Revolution at www.cphrc.org.uk